Ten-Finger Attack

Flying fingers. That was my first impression after hearing the classical guitar being played on a pre-released album by a young guitar virtuoso named Eliot Fisk. I was working at a high-end stereo manufacturing company in New Haven, Connecticut, when this recently recorded album (in 1979) was being piped through some test equipment: I was totally knocked out. Not only was this guy playing with more fingers than what seemed anatomically possible, but this was the first recording I had ever heard from a classical guitarist who was playing with fire in his belly. Having
been a rock guitarist looking for a new musical direction, my future was irreversibly determined on that day.

After a quick search for classical teachers in the area, I found someone
who was teaching at the University of Bridgeport and a former student of
Andres Segovia. I was prepared to get all my fingers greased and ready to
go when I went for my first lesson. To my surprise, he - and all classical
guitarists - played with not ten, but nine fingers (with the right-hand
pinkie curled and impotent - dangling in the wind). When I asked my
teacher about this he vaguely mentioned something about Segovia
experimenting with a ten-finger technique but axing it because of the
difficulty. My teacher also added, "You can do all you need to do with
nine fingers," and demonstrated by using the thumb to brush two adjacent
strings in a five-stringed chord and pick the remaining three strings by
using a kind of rolling attack: "Fffwaa" It sounded like - "Fffwaa".

Many years later, I was playing for my brother-in-law who was as equally
unexposed to classical guitar technique as I was in '79 and he asked a
familiar question: "Why don't you play with all ten fingers?" I tried to
tell my teacher's story, but, to tell the truth, I didn't really buy it
100% myself.

This got my juices going. "OK," I thought, "I'll take on the challenge."
My mission: introduce the tenth finger into the show.

Yes, I had heard that some modern guitarists use the tenth finger in a
limited capacity (Pierre Bensusan comes to mind), and flamenco tabulature
refers to the right-hand pinkie as digit "s" but seems to be used
exclusively in Rasguado strumming. In the highly disciplined classical
school, however, it is the forgotten finger.

Let me preface the technical aspects of this article with a brief
disclaimer: In no way do I advocate the 10-finger approach as a
replacement for the traditional nine-finger classical guitar method
popularized by Segovia and others. The traditional method has worked
extremely well for classical guitarists for many years and the
ten-finger approach is a separate alternative that may or may not work for
you. For some, however, it can open new doors and expand possibilities in
the writing of new music for both the acoustic and electric guitar. In my
experience, I still use nine-fingers for most of the music I write and play
although I find the tenth finger making more and more appearances because I
haven't excluded it in my thinking. On my album, Night Visions, I use
10-fingers on sections of two of the pieces.

I began my experimenting by observing how the right hand is held in the
"classical" position. Sure enough, the little pinkie came up looking a tad
short - too far away from the string to be doing any serious playing with
the four big guys on the block. Always rooting for the underdog, I was
undaunted, and, turning the hand ever so slightly in a clockwise (looking
from above) direction, found a position where the index finger and pinkie
were about the same distance from their respective strings. Keeping the
hand relaxed and natural, I moved the pinkie toward the string and
discovered that the natural curve of the pinkie causes it to strike the
string on the outer (right side - looking at the back of the hand) edge
of the finger. The other fingers, (p, i, m, a) meet the string on the left
side of the nail. (Note: in classical nomenclature, p=thumb, i=index
finger, m=middle finger, a=ring finger) I followed the traditional filing
method keeping the nail about 1/8 of an inch above the flesh and work the
entire nail, with special emphasis on the left side for the p, i, m, a
fingers with 400 to 600 grit sandpaper. With the pinkie, or s finger, I
began filing and sanding from the right side.

With that technicality aside, I began trying to wake up the little guy slowly. Being the type who is always in motion (I like to tap my fingers on tables, chairs; whatever is handy), I began to include the pinkie in these private concerts by trying to keep the spacing between taps of all the fingers even and alternating the sequence (p, i, m, a, s, a, m, i, p). This got to be relatively easy after a while although I noticed that the s finger took a more northerly route before it came down. This reminded me of when I first began playing in the classical style: It took my fingers some time before they learned not to make excessive excursions before striking a string. However, I soon discovered that the pinkie had a learning disability and wasn't going to be as cooperative as p, i, m or a.

I held little races between adjacent fingers, counting the number of evenly-spaced taps each pair could rap out in five-second intervals. P-i and i-m combinations were the clear winners with m-a taking the bronze and a-s waaaaay back in fourth place. In fact, a-s could only rap out 1/2 the amount of clicks as i-m (the gold medalists) in identical times.

Next, I tried different combinations: i-a vs i-s, p-m vs p-a vs p-s, m-a vs m-p vs m-s. In these heats, the little s guy fared better, but almost exclusively (with the exception of p-s) the s finger didn't cut the mustard. I questioned whether this finger was just muscularly undeveloped, or if there was really something physically limiting with it.

A quick scan of the hand anatomy told me that 20 muscles in the hand and 15 in the arm control finger movement. Seemed like enough. Alternating a-s together you probably can feel a muscle in your forearm being used only with this combination. My original thought was to strengthen this unused muscle by just practicing alternating a-s movements. I gave this a little time but it seemed like very slow (almost non-existent) progress. Since m-a is almost as undeveloped as a-s, and most rapid-fire runs are done with i-m, I reasoned that maybe I should deal with a whole-hand approach: using s not as much as i, but still developing arpeggios where s is an equal player.

This got me to thinking, what type of arpeggios could I play using p-i-m-a-s that I could not duplicate easily using p-i-m-a? If I couldn't get past this, well then, what was the point? I returned to the two discoveries that I managed: that p-i-m-a-s-a-m-i-p and p-s were combinations that worked well together.

Using the DADGAD tuning, I wrote a short piece which was both a good exercise for the s-finger as well as having arpeggio sections that are a real pain-in-the neck to play using p-i-m-a only. Without using any visual or audio aids here, the basic fingering for the main section was (with p on string 6, s on string 1, a on string 2, m on string 3, i on string 4, and p alone on string 5 when reversing direction): ps-a-m-i-p-i-m-a-s-a-m-i: played and repeated as a mellifluous roll at 152 bpm. This isn't very difficult to master using the s finger, buy try duplicating it using only p-i-m-a.

This was a start: Here was something that played easier and faster with ten fingers than with nine. This discovery pleased me because someone writing new guitar music probably wouldn't even consider this combination of notes if they played using the traditional fingering technique. My position is that any limitation that you can eliminate and any new technique that you can develop when writing new music for the guitar will be a big plus for you.

Beyond the above example, there is the more universal application for using all ten fingers: just plucking five-stringed chords staccato. The chords are richer, unique: memorable - and can only be played staccato (not the rolling 'Fffwa' sound) with ten fingers. And how about writing in different time signatures? Five-fingered arpeggios work effortlessly in 5/4 or 10/8 time.

I encourage younger players, or players willing to put in some experimental time to come up with something a little different, to give this idea some thought.

And, by the way, try telling a keyboardist or any wind player that they can do all they need to do using nine fingers.

Let's get all the fingers flying!

Peter Neri began playing the electric guitar as a teenager. While playing lead guitar with Connecticut rock groups in the 1970s, his bands opened for such legendary acts as The Lovin' Spoonful, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Dave Clark Five and Iron Butterfly.

Moving on with his life and musical interests, Peter put down the electric guitar for good in the 1980s. He moved to Vermont and began studying the classical guitar. While performing traditional classical guitar pieces, he also began writing music for the acoustic guitar.

The release of "Night Visions" was Peter's first solo acoustic guitar CD. Many selections from this eclectic album have been aired on National Public Radio.

Peter Neri